Losing My Edge

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Edge turned 20 recently, that could have been the impetus to review our relationship, but in all honesty I’d checked out years ago. I’d been living a lie. A mistaken belief that buying it and piling it round the house meant it was the same … it wasn’t. It’s impossible to not draw an analogy with marriage, my relationship with Edge is one of the longest I’ve ever had, longer than my actual marriage and relationship with my children. I’ll even lie, and say it was all great. It wasn’t.

If you asked if I was an Edge reader, I’d still say yes.

It had started so loftily, a recommendation, from a hipster peer, who looked down his nose at me as I was a ‘mere’ console gamer. He was a PC snob, my god, was he a PC snob. Edge, similarly looked down it’s nose at me and I let it.

In fairness, Edge helped me understand more about game design, about the medium itself, and let me listen in on conversations with the best game devs in the world. There were lots of good times.

However, Edge was also the arrogant ‘know it all’, the name dropper, the ‘too quick to quote’ and worst of all an arbiter of taste. Edge 10s are hateful and self indulgent. This conceit was clear in its benchmark, Famitsu. Impenetrable and mythical to Western readers, Edge filled a void that didn’t need to be filled. Edge became a smart arse.

The emergence of metacritic, made the single opinion, irrelevant. Edge fell into the meatgrinder, where only the outliers get noticed. Second rate click baiters trump editorial credibility. The snake eats itself. A symptom of an industry lost, even Edge couldn’t shine a light.

I remember the point when they lost me, the issue number is irrelevant. A piece on BioShock Infinite was simply a description of an E3 video (that turned out to be an elaborate bull shot anyway), it was shallow and vacuous. It served no point. Once I’d realised, the covers with the Ad funded UV spot varnish, the obvious platform bias (witness the recent U-Turn on Xbox One from demon to contender) and the self indulgent wallowing in self importance stuck in the craw.

This bile belies what Edge gave me, a fundamental toolkit for critical evaluation, but at what price? Can my opinions ever be my own, or has 16 years of Edge readership stolen my unique perspective? Maybe I never had one? And just thought I did. How very meta.

All in, it’s time for a trial separation. Honestly, it’s not you. It’s me.

Television vs. Video Games. Fight!

<BELL RINGS>

“In the red corner weighting in at 110lbs is the TV, undisputed champion of the sitting room since 1954, the darling of countless billions who have succumbed to its simple soporific charms. In the blue corner, the nimble upstart, the Video Game console, weighing in at 8lbs, rocking thumbs since the late 70s, but claiming their first world crown in 1985. The object of parental dismay ever since, and a font of moral panics. TV has been repeatedly bested by the youngster over the years but now is the time for TV to fight back! …”

This fight is far from over and the title bout takes place each year in January in Las Vegas at CES. Las Vegas is more than gin soaked gamblers, lamenting their losses in gaudy palaces of deceit. It’s the battle arena for global consumer electronics giants to fire salvos at each other. Each device is slimmer, faster and more innovative than the next. Want a 4mm thin TV? You got it. A fridge that can chill a can of coke in five minutes flat? Waterproof Smartphone. No problem.

CES is significant as its there that SMART TV is publicly racing ahead. Adoption is yet to reach a tipping point, but the migration is clearly apparent and for the console manufacturers, SMART TV is a spectre that cannot be ignored. App Stores on the device allied with intuitive inputs, motion control, gesture control and voice recognition are all present in the latest TVs. The ‘Killer App’ of Kinect just got pulled into the host, Kinect and the 360 now look like a counterintuitive double act. They’re starting to resemble clutter in the early stages of obsolescence.

It used to be the case that a games console provided entertainment that the TV could not, this hegemony went unchecked for decades as screen manufacturers stood idly by watching Nintendo, SEGA and Sony make a killing, delivering visceral content through adopted hosts. By the time the Xbox came along the stranglehold was vice like and the need for a console to deliver games was unassailable. They were untouchable.

The Wii arrived. Dragging with it new input methods and consumers, who were the exact intersect of the TV/Gaming audience. The lines became blurred primarily as the consumers (primarily) didn’t care which device was delivering the experience. The Wii UI aped TV channels, and recalled an aged CRT screen. The shark had been jumped. The console was invisible. Then the single most seismic event ever to hit gaming came along. The equivalent of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. The App Store.

In hindsight the Wii’s achievements will be all but forgotten, seen as an anomaly, an old model based on hackneyed technology allied with unique ideas.  The App Store opened the wallets of the non gaming ABC1 audience. The iPhone was a trojan horse, silver bullet and a vial of poison all wrapped into one. The games industry is still reeling from its impact. Its clear many will never get up from the suckerpunch.

The App Store explosion legitimized short form content delivery to the mainstream, and awakened every device manufacturer, to the fact they would to become a digital storefront. Many wastefully spent billions in an effort to mimic Apple, few succeeded. In 2012, It’s all about the audience. Samsung and LG command huge global audiences, engaging with them daily. They provide the warm blanket, the reassuring voice and the window on the world. TV is second only to the mobile phone as the ultimate ‘personal’ device. People love TV. Watch as they place them on walls, pushing family portraits to one side. Placed on an altar for the worship of false prophets.

TV as a concept crushes the Video Game a billion times. Video Games are niche. TV is Simon Cowell. TV is a huge metal fist in a velvet glove, the host will defeat the parasite, and the content will migrate into the TV. The consumer has ceased to care. Fanboys are a niche that are no longer the target of the console manufacturers attention.  The irony is that the console manufacturers are driving convergence, with motion control and the drive to turn Xbox LIVE into a ‘entertainment destination’, thereby quickening the infection. The 360 has mutated from a core gaming platform to a set-top box in an aim to capture the lapsed Wii audience. The problem? This audience has already made the jump to mobile and tablet, and they’re not coming back.

To the console manufacturers who think this won’t happen, I have one word. Kodak.

Video Games consoles are laid on the canvas bleary eyed, as the referee stands over them counting …

< … 7, 8, 9 … Its time to throw in the towel … >

Plus vs. Minus: Why Game Creators and their Audience HAVE to Change

Which are you?

In 2011 the web has stratified into two groups. Let’s call them the pluses and minuses.

In the simplest terms pluses are the ones who contribute, who add value, who share their voice and the intelligence they are gifted with. The best example I can think of are TED lectures. An egalitarian way to spread knowledge, incredible insight gained over years often decades shared for the common good. Then there are the minuses, the trolls, the off topic forum posters, the racists on YouTube comments, those who lurk and collect information for personal gain. These are the people using the web in a 1.0 way. They take , they don’t add value. The internet has given birth to magpies, who steal,  repeat and ride the coat tails of others. It’s also given birth to intellectual philanthropists. Typified by the actions of Tim Berners Lee.

Children are taught to share,  as we get older that we amass knowledge based on desire for power, supremacy and the upper hand.

This translates directly into game creation,  game players, and gaming habits.

Some games provide an architecture to deride, bully, hate and destroy. Grenade spam, Camping, Spawn Killing and Wall Glitching typify the desire for an unfair advantage. These games are minuses, as are their audiences. One note murder simulators for the masses.

Other games provide an intellectual frame, a platform or a way to add value, to push forward the medium of video games. These are the games created with intelligence and joy as the main drivers, not commerce. These games are not limited to shareware, XBLIG or Game Jams, it’s not about selflessness, it’s about spark. Minecraft is a plus, as is Notch himself. And Notch is at the Three Million sales mark. It’s not about a digital ivory tower and starving artists. Every publisher, content creator and platform holder has the ability to be a plus. Their variance from this norm is the litmus test. Contribution is key. If you don’t contribute, you’re invisible. You’re a minus. History remembers the Pluses. It derides the Minuses.

Concept: Are Digital Storefronts A Barrier To Entry?

Game Over for Digital Stores?

In a recent opinion piece Graham McAllister of Vertical Slice identified a fundamental flaw in the digital revolution. The customer can’t get to the content.

The birth of iTunes, immediately empowered the discovery journey, it launched with a simple and ubiquitous tool at the time. Search. As a PC based client it also had another useful ally. A keyboard. This melded a familiar mechanic with the perfect tool for the job. Searching on iTunes unlocked a world of music a click away. All of the tribulations of the early P2P days wiped out. If you wanted to buy ‘Africa’ by Toto you were seconds away. in 2011, if you’re a consumer looking for Galaga Legions DX, you could be traversing the store, driven by genre clues or an A-Z listing on Xbox LIVE, or tortuously using the search function on PSN. It’s laborious. McAllister is damning and correct in his piece.

He points to a 44 minute transaction. 20 minutes to browse and 24 minutes to purchase. This was a first timer, confused by a counterintuitive platform, with minimal guidance. McAllister extrapolates this to an endemic problem. In some respects he’s right, but he also doesn’t allow for the fact that humans learn over time. Agreed the purchase funnel is far from smooth, but regular transactors overcome this, week in week out. To that point I agree with McAllister, purchase intent should never be fulfilled by overcoming adversity. There is a problem.

McAllister turns to PSN and identifies issues with core mechanics on the platform. Agreed, PSN has challenges to overcome. Neither XBL or PSN are perfect, but McAllister’s comparison to traditional retail, is a fundamentally misleading comparison. The content of XBLA, PSN and Steam overlaps and augments physical goods, it also replaces them. Xbox LIVE Indie Games (as McAllister instructs) don’t exist in retail, neither do most of the XBL and PSN ‘starpowered’ games. The failure of these titles in packaged form, alludes to differing audiences. There’s also a core concept, in the future there will be no need to visit the stores, its likely they wont be there. The traditional retail experience of 2011 is a throwback thirty years, its tired, broken and on the way out.

Like an explosion of Venn Diagrams. It all points back to Chris Anderson. The man who proved ‘niche’ is a viable digital model.

In essence its misguided to think that Grandma and Little Johnny can’t adopt new ideas, but they certainly need help, McAllister and Vertical Slice are clearly perfectly suited to smooth the path. A ready reference to iOS and it frictionless delivery model, infers that the revolution will be digitized (with ease) but ignores DRM, Continual amends to T&Cs, the rampant piracy and jailbreaking on iOS, and that fact that the App Store is drowning in a mire of content reminiscent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The App Store is as much gristle as ‘secret sauce’

Widespread adoption of digital games may have a glass ceiling (but the ‘all digital’ ecosystem of the App Store would refute that claim), and it might be that there is a bifurcated future, of packaged for one audience and digital for the rest. Gifting, Second Hand and Budget ranges might be the things that keep physical goods alive, and as those falter and wither its imperative that Digital Storefronts have adopted the lessons McAllister points out.

Concept: Why the Video Games Industry needs Ubiquity

In the 25 years between 1983 and 2008 the CD player became ubiquitous.

In 1985 the CD player was  “ … transforming the way people listen to music. With their sweet sound, easy operation and virtually indestructible disks, they represent a technological leap beyond records and tapes.” Time magazine described it as the “ … fastest selling machine in home-electronics history”.The reason for the CDs success was simple, the sound quality was an improvement on both vinyl and tape and they were robust. CD players were the must have item of the 1980’s. CD sales increased in the mid to late 80s and sold well in the early 90’s. The first portable CD player, the Discman, appeared in 1983. The first CD player, manufactured by Pioneer, for the use in the car appeared in 1984. The CD was first used as a CD-Rom in 1985.

Whilst the CD had a great strength in its ubiquity, it also caused problems. CDs were not region specific, even with copy protection encryption they were able to be copied, and the commonness of the product meant they started to be perceived as a commodity instead of a vessel for art.

Every CD player in the world could play a properly authored CD (whilst burnt CDs can cause problems), and this meant that not only was the price of the format forced down, but the cost of the technology continued to fall. In 2011, an entry level CD player is £20 or less. This meant that the format was completely interchangeable between multiple devices and there were no problems playing a CD on players from different manufacturers.

In the video games industry the situation is quite different. There have always been competing manufacturers; in 2011 there are 3 main manufacturers of Home Consoles: Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft, but there have never been an opportunity to play Nintendo games on a Sony or Microsoft device and vice versa. Whilst games may appear on different systems, they are not portable across manufacturers, these releases are multi-platform.

The platform with the most commonly shared architecture is the Personal Computer (PC). Most PCs share the same operating system (most commonly Windows), and the main differences come from the internal components. In most cases a game is limited in its reach by the system requirements, namely a new game may require elements that older PCS do not have to run. PC development has been incremental, but rapid, since their introduction in 1981 by IBM and less specifically bound by the Generations cycle that exists in console gaming.

But what if ubiquity was the goal? As Chaplin and Ruby (2005) comment:

“Ubiquity is what the [games] industry has been after for years, and ubiquity seems to be what it is finally getting. One study, from investment analysts at Deutsche Bank Alex. Brown, has just concluded that the potential market for video games had grown from 20 million people in 1980 to 96 million in 2001 and is now growing exponentially—106 million people in 2005 and onward, as every baby born takes to the videogame habit.”

This was suggested by J Allard in 2003:

What I’d like to see us do as an industry is create more standardisation… Before television was standardised, there was no television. Before video was standardised, there was only Beta. Beta only had limited success, but it was technically superior and was a profitable business – but it didn’t have ubiquitous content, and you didn’t have it in every consumer’s hands, and it was price prohibitive. Today gaming has a lot in common with what BETA had yesterday. DVD, CD, television and radio are all ubiquitous – how do we make gaming ubiquitous too? I think it’s through standardisation

Digital Crisis: When and where for the Games Industry?

The key event that emphasised the first Digital Crisis in the music industry was the emergence of Napster in 1999.

Napster was the music industry’s worst nightmare; it provided a simple and efficient way for music fans to share music files between each other. Napster removed all of these traditional barriers to music discovery and distribution. Napster was a simple idea; it held a list of tracks available on other users hard drives and then pointed the computers towards each other.When files were exchanged they went directly from computer to computer (peer-to-peer). The software had started to be distributed by Sean Fanning on June 1st 1999 to around 30 of his friends. The software quickly spread virally to music fans and had around 1 million users at the end of 1999.

Napster ushered in the peer-to-peer revolution as Napster itself only provided a list of who was logged onto the service and the files that they were prepared to share from their hard drives. This crucial element would present the most challenging problem to the music industry in the years that followed. As Brafman and Beckstrom noted in “The Starfish and the Spider”, Napster typified the decentralized nature of music distribution on the internet. If one Napster user was removed then the content would quickly be made available by another user, like a starfish being able to grow a new leg.

Due to the decentralized nature of Napster, the music industry was presented with little choice of targeting Napster directly. The problems were all the more apparent as the primary users of the service were educated college students who had broadband internet connections. In 1999 it was noted that Napster was consuming 30% of internet bandwidth at the Universities of Oregon State and Florida State. In May 2008 it was estimated that peer-to peer was using 44% of all internet bandwidth despite huge advances in bandwidth speeds in the 9 year interim. US colleges started to ban the use of Napster as it was pushing their internet services to breaking point. The high watermark for Napster came in 2001 when there were an estimated 80 million people using the service. At this point it was clear that Napster had entered the mainstream, and that it amounted to IP theft on an industrial scale. Pandora’s Box was well and truly opened and the Long Tail was born as noted by Moon (2005);

In short, the free service was a feast for music aficionados looking for something rare or esoteric, as well as budding music fans looking to build a collection of the latest hits.

Paradoxically, this description would have been the answer to all of the music industry’s prayers, an active and connected community who were voraciously discovering and consuming music. Unfortunately this was fuelled by the fact that it was available for free, thereby giving birth to the Freesumer

In 1999, The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) started proceedings against Napster. In 2000 Metallica also brought a lawsuit against the company. Immediately, on a global basis, digital downloading was being widely discussed and explored by more consumers than ever. Metallica’s thoughts were clear, as drummer Lars Ulrich said at the time:

… From a business standpoint, this is about piracy. The trading of such information – whether its music, videos, photos or whatever – is, in effect, trafficking in stolen goods

This was a key point that would be returned to throughout the first digital music decade, as Steve Jobs (Apple) noted in 2003 when discussing the necessity for digital rights management (DRM):

We don’t believe it’s possible to protect digital content … What’s new is this amazingly efficient distribution system for stolen property called the Internet — and no one’s gonna shut down the Internet …So what you have to do is compete with it.